For as long as Marie Davidian can remember, statistics has been a dreaded field. When she tells people she’s a statistician, she doesn’t usually get warm responses. The statistics professor thinks the aversion stems from how poorly the discipline was once taught.
“Traditionally it wasn’t taught as a subject that was really useful,” she says.
But thanks to a major data explosion, statistics is getting a lot of attention in the scientific and popular media. In the past year the Boston Globe, American Journal of Science and Nature have devoted entire editions to data and described the field as “hot.” A watershed event occurred in 2009 when Google chief economist Hal Varian described statisticians as this decade’s “sexy professional.” And dead-on predictions of the 2012 and 2008 presidential elections by statistician Nate Silver were hailed as genius.
“So now we are sexy—it’s great— and this helps raise awareness of how important statistics is,” Davidian says.
Big Data, Big Audience
In January she began a one-year term as president of the American Statistical Association, a scientific and educational community with over 18,000 members in more than 90 countries worldwide. ASA and four other major statistical organizations have designated 2013 the International Year of Statistics to capitalize on all the recent media attention.
To enhance this global effort, Davidian took up an offer from The Huffington Post and began writing a regular blog on statistics this month. It’s a plum assignment. The progressive news site draws more than 50 million unique visitors and logs more than eight million comments a month, making it a more popular site than the New York Times.
The Huffington Post editors recruited Davidian last month after she and other ASA board members were interviewed for the Boston Globe article. Her instructions were to blog 1,200 words on anything related to statistics, twice a month.
“I was amazed and delighted,” she says.
In Davidian’s first post, she alerts readers that this year is indeed the International Year of Statistics and recounts the many ways that statistics are important. For instance, statistics allow experts to predict elections, design and analyze clinical trials and assist with purchase suggestions for online shoppers. Complex surveys–including the U.S. census–are designed and conducted by statisticians, she writes.
The federal government, unbeknownst to many, has 14 statistical agencies, she adds. And scientific breakthroughs, like the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe, depend on statistical models.
The many applications of statistics have changed the way the discipline is taught. Professors now routinely pepper their lectures with discussions of media reports involving statistics, assign data analysis projects to teams of students and bring other hands-on activities into the classroom to demonstrate the relevance of statistics to students’ everyday lives.
Bright Future for Statisticians
Davidian loves writing about her field and encourages more people to pursue advanced statistics degrees. There’s real momentum growing now in academia, she says, noting that applications to NC State’s Department of Statistics, one of the country’s oldest and largest, are at record highs.
“There are so many opportunities for statisticians today, especially those with an advanced degree—doors will open for you, even in a tough economy.”